Decalogue Reading Guide

The Decalogue and Its Status in Interpretation

Collins, “Introduction”

In general, Collins is our source for general overviews of modern scholarship.

The idea of a biblical canon developed over time, and different faith traditions still differ on the order and number of books.

The major events and chronology described in the Bible begin to correlate with verifiable external sources around the time of the Davidic monarchy (1000 BCE). Most of the biblical books took shape between 587 and 164 BCE.

Some of the events and chronology Collins reviews will come up again in the course, including: Assyrian invasion, northern kingdom, southern kingdom, Josiah, Babylonian Exile, Second Temple Period.

The historical-critical methods that developed in modern times can be thought of as attempts to recover different stages in the development of the biblical text.

Collins, “The Revelation at Sinai”

The Israelite covenant bears remarkable similarities to Assyrian vassal treaties, both in structure and particular phrases. The main difference is that for the Israelites the suzerain is God.

Collins reviews some of the issues covered in class previously and comments on the original context of individual prohibitions.

We will turn to the Book of the Covenant, or Covenant Code, next week and the issues of slavery and violence the following week. Some issues in the Covenant Code we will address when they come up in Deuteronomy or Genesis (rape, ransom of the firstborn). Collins surveys several other issues we will not focus on, some of which might make good paper topics.

Collins gives an overview of Exodus 32 (the golden calf), to which we will return when we come to the Priestly Source with questions of who gets to speak for God, and how different temples and priesthoods vied for authority.

Blenkinsopp, “Ordering Life by Law,” pp. 84–89; and “Decalogue,” pp. 102–106

In general, Blenkinsopp will serve as our anchor for the legal focus on the course. Some of the other readings may be difficult or controversial, but Blenkinsopp’s introduction should be accessible to everyone. For the auditors who can only do some reading, I generally suggest Blenkinsopp. Also, it is free through the library website.

Terms we will continue to see: Torah (much more than law), oral law, Mishnah, Talmud, the distinction between Israel and Judaism, Covenant Code, Deuteronomy as revision of Covenant Code.

The Pentateuch “is a literary and theological construct built up over a long period of time with the purpose of authorizing Israel’s civic and religious institutions and expressing what was thought to be essential for its identity. … [It] inscribes, in both law and narrative, more than one understanding of how Israel is to worship God, regulate its common life, and relate to outsiders” (p. 88).

Short lists of apodictic principles (as opposed to case law) are common in Israelite literature, but not in other nations. The Decalogue per se is not particularly close to vassal treaties and the list of denials in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Decalogue developed over centuries. The most likely scenario is that the first stage was the idea of a national covenant with a moral God, based on ethical obligations. Then there were lists of ethical principles used in public ritual, and referenced by prophets. The Deuteronomic school produced the version we recognize, and the Priestly editors made some adjustments in Exodus. We will return to the documentary hypothesis: the idea that the Pentateuch as we have it was edited together from four distinct documents or schools of composition, J, E, D, and P.

Kugel, “At Mt. Sinai [part 1],” pp. 373–395

In general, Kugel is our source for early (premodern) biblical interpretation. Recall that this interpretation is characterized by the four assumptions (cryptic, relevant, perfect, divine) summarized in these notes (HTML) and in Kugel pp. 17–23. Although the basic assumptions last much longer, Kugel focuses on texts from 200 BCE to 300 CE, or later texts that preserve interpretations from that time. Though not required, you might want to consult the glossary of terms and sources (pp. 567–616).

Sooner or later, I would like you to get a feel for the kinds of questions that bothered early interpreters, and the creativity they brought to offering solutions. For this reading, try to retain a sense of how interpreters answer the following questions:

By the way, one issue Kugel does not really address, for simplicity, is that the process of “interpretation” began while the books of the Bible were still being written. Later books of the Bible interpret earlier books of the Bible. We can even identify interpretation in revision and redaction within a book.

Geza Vermes, “The Decalogue and the Minim” (PDF)

Try to read for the argument without getting hung up on every unfamiliar term.

This short article explores different views in ancient Judaism about the status of the Decalogue relative to the rest of the commandments. Some viewed the ten as the essence of the commandments, some viewed the ten as the only divine commandments, some reacted to any implication that the others are any less divine than the ten. What verse does Vermes think was fundamental to the argument?

Select New Testament passages on the Law (PDF)

See the questions included in the handout. We will focus on two major questions. What is the status of the law in general for Christians (according to various New Testament sources or the subsequent tradition)? What is the status and interpretation of the Decalogue?

Philo of Alexandria, excerpts from On the Decalogue (PDF)

Philo was a Greek-speaking Jew living in Alexandria, Egypt. He was very well educated in Greek philosophy and sought to reconcile Greek and Jewish thought. He was slightly older than Jesus and Paul. For more description of Philo of Alexandria see Kugel’s glossary (p. 597).

There are many interesting points in the Philo reading. Here are a few to which I would like to call attention.

Philo’s approach to the foundational origin of law is mostly that of “natural law.” Philo presents the Law of Moses as the perfect expression and mode of instruction of the universal laws inherent in the cosmos. Philo mentions in this reading, and expands elsewhere, the claim that the patriarchs before Moses (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) followed the law even before it was written down because they were so perfectly in tune to the harmony of the cosmos. Without backing off of the claim that God revealed the laws at Sinai, Philo avoids justifying the law “because God said so.” Every aspect of the law is rational and indicates some universal truth of philosophy, arithmetic, or political science.

Similarly, note that Philo avoids particular reference to the nation of Israel or the Jewish people. The theophany at Sinai is not an exclusive covenant between God and one people. Rather, it is instruction that is applicable to all humans. Elsewhere, Philo suggests that all philosophers study the same universal truths and succeed to the extent to which they exercise reason. Plato, for example, did an okay job, but Moses was the supreme philosopher and teacher.

Philo was a Hellenistic (culturally Greek) Jew, and a representative of the milieu in which Christianity developed. In several ways Philo’s ideas and manner of thinking are closer to Christianity than Rabbinic Judaism.

Note the ways in which Philo’s interpretation exemplifies the four assumptions (cryptic, relevant, perfect, divine).